The 1967 Giro d’Italia

[Editor's note: Bill and Carol McGann recently published the first in their two-volume history of the Giro d'Italia. I haven't had time to actually read it yet, but I recall from previous conversations Bill's assertion that the Giro has been a consistently surprising race though its history. He's given us the opportunity to run an excerpt here, and for those of you unfamiliar with his previous work, this is a terrific example of his ability to connect dots to paint a portrait of the time. Herewith, we present you with the 1967 Giro in less than 3000 words.]

1967. What a field assembled for the fiftieth Giro d’Italia! After years of being an Italian race, the Giro was once again an international competition. There was Motta with Rudi Altig and Franco Balmamion as gregari; there were Anquetil, Bitossi, Taccone, Francisco Gabica, Eddy Merckx, Ferdi Bracke, van Looy, Adorni, Gimondi (who suffered a terrible spring and had real doubts about his condition), Wladimiro Panizza, Silvano Schiavon, Zilioli, José Pérez-Francés, Vicente López-Carril and Roger Pingeon to name some of the outstanding stage racers of this or any age who assembled to start at Treviglio, south of Bergamo. There were past and future world champions Marino Basso, Jean Stablinski, van Looy, Merckx, Harm Ottenbros, and Gimondi, and future World Hour Record holders Ole Ritter, Ferdi Bracke, and Merckx.

Belgian Eddy Merckx was riding his first Grand Tour. He turned pro in 1965, just short of his twentieth birthday. He had already won 80 amateur races, including the World Road Championship (at nineteen). His first year as a pro riding for Solo-Superia with the imperious and difficult Rik van Looy was an unhappy one and in 1966 he switched to Peugeot where he would spend two years. It was in the black-and-white-checked kit of Peugeot that Merckx entered the Giro, riding with Ferdi Bracke and Roger Pingeon. Merckx’s spring was simply wonderful with wins in Milan–San Remo, Gent–Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne.

In 1967 Anquetil didn’t have to deal with the poisonous relations between Ford France and Ford Italy since Bic, which at that time made only pens, now sponsored him and his core of capable domestiques.

At 3,572 kilometers, the 1967 Giro was the shortest since 1960. It had 23 stages (two half stages crammed into the last day) for an average stage length of 155 kilometers, close to current Giro lengths.

Torriani had planned to kick off the Giro with a nighttime race through Milan but the stage had to be cancelled when anti-Vietnam war protestors filled the streets.

After five stages of good hard racing, the Giro arrived at Naples for a transfer to Sicily. Michele Dancelli was the leader with Pérez-Francés second at thirteen seconds. So far the best riders were sitting towards the top of the standings but no large gaps had appeared.

Stage seven, ending atop Mount Etna, broke the peloton into bits for the first time. Climbing and sprinting ace Franco Bitossi was first to the top of the volcano. Coming in about 20 seconds later, Motta was the first of the contenders, followed by Merckx, Gimondi, Zilioli, Pérez-Francés, Adorni and Pingeon. Anquetil, Altig and Balmamion were a further twenty seconds back. Dancelli remained in pink for another day.

Racing resumed on the mainland the next day, where the mountainous roads of Calabria were too much for Dancelli. He lost over five minutes, making Pérez-Francés the Pink Jersey with Aldo Moser second at just three seconds. Just three seconds, that’s gotta hurt.

The next test was the hilly stage twelve, starting at Caserta and finishing with a climb to Block Haus, an old German fortification sitting over 2,000 meters high in Abruzzo. At this point Pérez-Francés was still the leader with everyone who mattered but Anquetil within 73 seconds of the Spaniard.

At the start of the Block Haus climb the riders had already spent almost seven hours in the saddle with the Macerone, Rionero Sannitico and Roccaraso ascents behind them. The leaders were together and ascended the steep climb at a good pace. With two kilometers to go, Zilioli unleashed a devastating attack that only one rider could match, young Merckx. For Merckx, this was unknown territory. He was reaching the end of two weeks of nearly continuous racing and faced yet another week to go. Was Merckx a man for the Grand Tours or a single-day rider in van Looy’s mold? The world was learning. He said about that moment, “I still felt good. I hadn’t ridden many mountains before so I kept following, but when Italo Zilioli attacked with two kilometers to go, I felt good enough to chase.”

Yes he did. After sitting on Zilioli’s wheel for a kilometer he lit the jets and bounded for the summit with such power and speed that Merckx’s win at Block Haus in the 1967 Giro became one of the enduring legends of the Giro. It was Merckx’s first Grand Tour stage win.

Zilioli wasn’t left far behind, though. He came in at 10 seconds, Pérez-Francés (still in pink after Block Haus) at 20 and Anquetil at 23.

Merckx’s brilliant ride moved him up to third place, 30 seconds down.

For all the hard racing that had occurred, going into the 45-kilometer stage sixteen individual time trial at Verona the gaps between the riders at the top of the standings remained razor-thin:

1. José Pérez-Francés

2. Aldo Moser @ 18 seconds

3. Eddy Merckx @ 50 seconds

4. Silvano Schiavon @ 53 seconds

5. Italo Zilioli @ 1 minute 3 seconds

6. Gianni Motta @ 1 minute 13 seconds

The time trial, ridden on a cold and rainy day, was won by Danish neo-pro Ole Ritter. Ritter’s performance left Anquetil incredulous. He said that Ritter’s pace of 47.3 kilometers per hour would have been good enough to break the World Hour Record.

Indeed. Ritter would go on to break the Ferdi Bracke’s World Hour Record in 1972 and then Merckx would break Ritter’s record later that year.

The results of the stage:

1. Ole Ritter: 56 minutes 59 seconds

2. Rudi Altig @ 1 second

3. Ferdi Bracke @ 2 seconds

4. Jacques Anquetil @ 6 seconds

5. Felice Gimondi @ 38 seconds

There were three notable poor performances: Adorni was about two minutes slower than Ritter on a course that a couple of years ago would have been just right for him to crush the opposition. Merckx lost 2 minutes 49 seconds and Motta gave up 3 minutes 17 seconds. Merckx was a freshman who had never before faced the third week of a stage race and was not yet a complete rider. But Motta was the defending Giro champion and was now out of the top 10.

The new General Classification:

1. Jacques Anquetil

2. Felice Gimondi @ 53 seconds

3. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 59 seconds

4. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds

5. José Pérez-Francés @ 2 minutes 16 seconds

There were two major consequences of this time trial. Anquetil was now in pink, and Motta’s Molteni team bosses decided to break Balmamion’s chains of servitude to the faltering Motta. Balmamion was now free to race on his own account.

The next stage came after a rest day. Balmamion got into the winning break that included Silvano Schiavon, Gabica, Panizza and Massignan. The 3 minutes 43 seconds they carved out of the peloton put Schiavon in the lead and moved Balmamion up to fifth place, only 2 minutes 29 seconds behind. He had done more with less in past Giri.

Stage nineteen left Udine for a hilltop finish at the top of the difficult Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb. The weather was dreadful that day with rain, snow and fog. At the beginning of the ascent Wladimiro Panizza was three minutes ahead of the field and he looked to be headed for the win. His director, fearing a stiff fine, did all he could to keep the tifosi from pushing the diminutive climber up the hill. Just as he closed in on the summit, Panizza was suddenly passed by a slew of riders, most of whom possessed only a fraction of his climbing skills.

How did this happen? With two kilometers to go, the chasers were struggling in miserable weather on the stiffest part of the climb. The gradient at that point was almost fourteen percent. The riders had, in a moment of collective moral failure, grabbed on to the team cars and were towed up to Panizza. Gimondi was first across the line because, as sportswriter René de Latour noted, “he had the fastest car”. Outraged, a furious Torriani wouldn’t let the fraudulent result stand and annulled the stage. La Gazzetta writer Bruno Raschi called it “le montagne del disonore”.

Bic, Anquetil’s sponsor, decided that they weren’t interested in winning the Giro. Believable reasons don’t seem to be forthcoming; non-believable ones abound. Anquetil says that his domestiques stopped getting their paychecks and understandably, most of them abandoned. Denson says that he was told that the riders were being pulled from the Giro to save them for races later in the season. Since the Tour was to be contested by national teams in 1967, this excuse really makes no sense. Another hypothesis is that this was a move to allow Anquetil to have an excuse for losing. But Anquetil wasn’t giving up, so this seems illogical as well. Nonetheless, Anquetil raced for Bic until the end of his career in 1969 which says to me that there was something terribly complicated going on behind the scenes and Anquetil took the explanation to his grave.

By the start of stage twenty Anquetil was down to only two helpers, Lucien Aimar and Jean Milesi. Fending off the combined attacks of the Italians with just these two gregari would be an extreme physical challenge. Realizing the necessity of having more legs on his side he tried to form an alliance (that means paying them money) with some of the Spanish riders. He failed, blaming it on his sponsor’s parsimony. In fact, the Spaniards had already allied themselves with the Italians, making Anquetil’s situation even more difficult.

Stage twenty was the tappone, going from Cortina d’Ampezzo to Trent taking the riders over the Falzarego, Pordoi, Rolle and Brocon ascents.

Anquetil had bad luck early in the stage, getting two flats. Next, on the descent of the Brocon, Merckx, Gimondi, Adorni and Motta got away from him. After a desperate and impressive chase (look who he was trying to catch!) he finally regained contact. Further up the road Adorni, Gimondi, Michelotto, Balmamion and Pérez-Francés managed to put about a half-minute between themselves and Merckx/Anquetil group. Still, Anquetil had done more than stave off catastrophe, he had recaptured the lead. It was a brutal day and Anquetil had gone very deep.

With two stages to go the race was still extremely tight and the General Classification now stood thus:

1. Jacques Anquetil

2. Felice Gimondi @ 34 seconds

3. Franco Balmamion @ 47 seconds

4. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 40 seconds

5. José Pérez-Francés @ 1 minute 55 seconds

6. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds

Stage 21 was hilly with a major climb, the Tonale. Originally the Stelvio was the stage’s planned ascent but bad weather forced the organizers to look elsewhere. The Gavia was proposed as a replacement but it too was snowed in. The Tonale was pronounced usable and put into the race route, though the riders would still have to contend with an energy-sapping cold rain. Gimondi’s powerful team set a high pace during the ascent, and near the top, Motta and Gimondi attacked, dropping Anquetil and Merckx, now paying for his youthful expenditure of energy during the first two weeks. With the aid of teammate Aimar, one of the sport’s finest-ever descenders, Anquetil regained contact. It was here, after the Tonale, that the 1967 Giro was decided.

Marcello Mugnaini attacked and escaped first. Then Gimondi, who had Anquetil right behind him, stormed off. The Frenchman couldn’t hold his wheel. Having drawn down his reserves too far the day before, Anquetil didn’t have the strength to go with Gimondi’s powerful move.

Mugnaini won the stage, finishing in Tirano with a couple of other riders who weren’t in contention. As Mugnaini was almost a half-hour down in the General Classification, his win and time gain had no effect upon the standings.

But 62 seconds later Gimondi crossed the line, alone. It was 4 minutes 9 seconds before Willy Planckaert led in the Anquetil group. Gimondi remains proud of that masterful attack and sustained escape. It earned him the maglia rosa and pushed Anquetil into second at 3 minutes 35 seconds. The question that has been asked over the years is, why didn’t the other Italians give chase? That Anquetil was out of gas and had almost no one to help him is well understood. But why not Balmamion, who was one of the outstanding riders of the day, and given his excellent time trial in stage sixteen, was in excellent condition?

He and the other riders who were on Gimondi’s level seem to have let the man from Bergamo simply ride away with the Giro. They just let him go.

A photographer was there to catch that moment when Gimondi jumped away. There is a grim-faced Anquetil five yards off his wheel with Balmamion just behind Anquetil with Adorni to his right and Motta close by and another ten or so riders all in a small pack sitting on Anquetil and Adorni. The explanation usually given is a deal was hatched among the Italians to make sure one of their countrymen won the race and Gimondi was the chosen beneficiary of this plot. Advocates of this view also say that Anquetil was paid a significant sum of money to let someone else win. There are still whispers in Italy of a briefcase with fifty million lire used to buy the acquiescence of the santa alleanza degli italiani (holy alliance of Italians). We’ll never know.

Anquetil’s situation was catastrophic. What could he do now? The final stage was split into two half-stages. In the morning the Giro would climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo, the shrine of cycling, just north of Milan. It was impossible to believe an exhausted Anquetil could take four minutes out of Gimondi with his powerful Salvarani team protecting him during those 140 kilometers. In fact, it went the other way. Balmamion rode beautifully to get second place in the stage, dropping all but Aurelio González. He gained enough time to take second place in the Overall away from Anquetil.

Anquetil had said it would be 100 riders against 1. It wasn’t quite true, but with no team to defend him, he was helpless.

And long after many observers had written off Balmamion’s chances, the double Giro winner had turned in a sterling performance and might have won the race. Did he agree to let Gimondi win? Was there an agreement? Who knows? Balmamion was third in the Tour that July and became Italian Road Champion.

Merckx went on to win the World Road Championship that fall.

Final 1967 Giro d’Italia General Classification:

1. Felice Gimondi (Salvarani) 101 hours 5 minutes 34 seconds

2. Franco Balmamion (Molteni) @ 3 minutes 36 seconds

3. Jacques Anquetil (Bic) @ 3 minutes 45 seconds

4. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor) @ 4 minutes 33 seconds

5. José Pérez-Francés (KAS) @ 5 minutes 17 seconds

6. Gianni Motta (Molteni) @ 6 minutes 21 seconds

9. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot) @ 11 minutes 41 seconds

Climbers’ Competition:

1. Aurelio Gonzales (KAS): 630 points

2. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor): 150

3. Wladimiro Panizza (Vittadello): 140

Points Competition:

1. Dino Zandegù (Salvarani): 200 Points

2. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot): 178

3. Willy Planckaert (Romeo Smiths): 176

Reflecting on the 1967 Giro, Gimondi recalled, “The 1967 Giro started badly for me because I was suffering from bronchitis. At first, I had trouble staying with the main challengers, but later in the race I grew stronger. I had a great duel with Jacques Anquetil and managed to eventually drop him on the mountainous stage to Aprica [stage 21 that continued on to Tirano, the Aprica being the final major difficulty] and took the maglia rosa. It was a great Giro because of the rivalry between me and Jacques.”

About the race-fixing stories, Zilioli said, “I heard about those rumors, but as far as I know there was no pro-Gimondi alliance. I think instead that Balmamion, who was in good shape, was not careful enough. He could have followed Gimondi more closely during the race.

“Anquetil ‘played the dead rider’ and perhaps Balmamion did not sense the race strategies as they were unfolding. On the other side I also think he was not helped to become the new Italian Champion. He was never favored and he never favored anyone in his career.”

That fall Anquetil went to Milan’s Vigorelli velodrome and beat Roger Rivière’s eleven-year-old World Hour Record by 150 meters. He would have brought it to 47.493 kilometers, but he refused to submit to a drug test, so the ride was never certified by the UCI. The 1967 Giro was Anquetil’s last Grand Tour ride and he would only have two more major wins, the 1968 Baracchi Trophy with Gimondi and the 1969 Tour of the Basque Country. For fourteen years he had, like the other professionals of his era, raced about 235 days a year. It was a magnificent career in which he was the first five-time Tour winner, the first French winner of the Giro and the first man to win all three Grand Tours.

I like Tom Simpson’s explanation as to why Anquetil was such a prolific winner, “Jacques simply tries harder than anyone I have met. In a time trial you can hear him catching you, you don’t have to look round, there is this hoarse sound of breath being drawn in gulps, and then he’s past you. Then it’s like being in a thunderstorm, with the sweat simply pouring off him as he goes by.”

 

 

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